Monday, 11 June 2018

World Cup Preview - Group H

Group H

Poland (10)
Senegal (28)
Colombia (16)
Japan (60)

Poland - Going to their first World Cup since 2006, Poland will be glad they have been drawn in a group that gives them a strong chance of qualifying for the Last 16 for the first time since the 80's. In a group with Denmark, Romania and Montenegro, they qualified with ease, losing only one game away in Montenegro.

The squad has a good blend of youth and experience, but the bulk of the starting 11 is made of up experienced players who have played in the big leagues in Europe.

Lukas Piszczek and Jakub Blaszczykowski played together on the right hand side for Dortmund for many years and have a good understanding there. At 33 and 32 respectively they are likely going to their last tournaments. They used to have serious pace and cause trouble with that, but they are good footballers and can still be creative influences.

Two midfielders that are exciting members of the squad are Arkadiusz Milik and Piotr Zielinski. Both have been at Napoli for the last two seasons, with Milik being unlucky with knee injuries. He has had operations on both knees for separate injuries and it will be interesting to see how fit he is in Russia. Two years ago he was looking like a top prospect playing with Ajax. He has a beautiful left foot and great feet, but is also a threat in the air. Hopefully the injuries haven't slowed him down.

Zielinski is smaller, quicker and a skillful player. He likes running with the ball and is more of a creater of chances.

At central defense, Monaco defender Kamil Glik is strong and aggressive and a crucial part of the team. He has picked up an injury to his shoulder in training, doing an overhead kick, so if he is missing that will be a huge lose to Poland. Behind him, if fit, will be one of two former Arsenal keepers, Szczesny or Fabianski. Fabianski has been a regular this year at Swansea and that game time could well be the deciding factor over who is number one this tournament.

Poland finished third in 1974 and 1982, but they will be surprising everyone if they make it that far again. They have a great chance to progress from the group where they will face Belgium or England most likely. They are a strong team with some exciting players, they won't be easy to beat.

Star Man - 16 goals in qualification for Robert Lewandowski was 13 more than anyone else in the team. He has been one of the best goalscorers in world football for seven seasons now in the Bundesliga, and with 52 goals is the record scorer for his country. This will be his first World Cup and a chance to do it on the biggest stage of all. He is possibly looking for a move this summer, and a Golden Boot performance from him would drive up his price.

Senegal - The Lions of Teranga are going to the World Cup for the first time since they shocked France in 2002. Their only tournament to date resulted in a Quarter Finals place, something that will be hard to replicate here. They were given an easy group in qualification to help them through, with an unbeaten six games against Burkino Faso, South Africa and Cape Verde Islands.

The team relies on a strong base, with 3 defensive minded midfielders, allowing the three upfront to try and create chances. They only scored 10 goals in the six qualifying games, with top scorers Diafra Sakho and Cheikh N'Doye getting two each. Sakho was at West Ham for four seasons, but never looked like a regular goalscorer. His best season was 12 goals in the first year he arrived. He moved to Rennes in January and only managed four games, scoring three goals. He is likely to be used from the bench for Senegal.

The likely front three of Keita Balde, Sadio Mane and M'Baye Niang is very exciting for Senegal. They are all extremely quick, and are all interchangeable in a front three. They will be hard to deal with on a counter attack. Balde in particular has impressed since his move to Monaco last Summer, and with himself and Niang both only being 23 years old, the future could be bright for Senegal.
Sadio Mane has had another great season with Liverpool, especially in their Champions League run. He sometimes looks a little out of control, but his pace and directness are a real threat.

The choice of five midfielders all playing in England shows the team has a lot of quality. However the midfield is mostly strong against the ball and lack quality on it. They won't be readily joining the attack, and they are not generally considered a goal threat in open play. Set pieces however could be a big weapon for Senegal. With at least five players in the starting team over 6ft4in, they could be tough to deal with if delivery from corners and free kicks is good enough.

Star Man - Kalidou Koulibaly has been a rock at the heart of the Napoli defense this season as they tried to wrestle the Serie A stranglehold that Juventus have away from them. His stoppage time winner from a corner in Turin looked like the catalyst for it to happen, but they ultimately fell short. The French born 26 year old stands at 6ft5, is quick and strong, but also can read the game.

Nicknamed 'The Wall' by fans, he can also come out with the ball and pick a pass. He could be a big money mover this summer, and he has a chance to show off his qualities on the world stage.

Colombia - Four years ago in Brazil, Colombia were the team everybody enjoyed watching. They played attacking football and James Rodriguez emerged as one of the best players in the world. A controversial quarter final defeat by Brazil didn't stop the fans welcoming them home as heroes. Four years on and they arrive on the back of a qualifying campaign in which they struggled to score goals, and only just qualified in fourth place, on the last game day. The South American qualifiers are difficult, but it was the lack of firepower that really worries Colombia.

In January 2014, an ACL tear to star striker Radamel Falcao was a bitter blow to the squad. He wouldn't be back in time for the World Cup, and now it is great to see him back scoring goals and getting his opportunity to come to his first tournament. He didn't look fit at Manchester United or Chelsea, but since his return to Monaco he has almost looked back to his best. His 24 goals this season have helped Monaco to second place in Ligue 1, and I hope he can go on to have a big World Cup.
Two defenders that have come on to the international scene recently are Yerry Mina, who plays at Barcelona, and Davinson Sanchez at Spurs. Both are tall and quick, but definitely have mistakes in them. It will be interesting to see how they fair if Colombia are playing against stronger opposition.

Winger Juan Cuadrado is another player who didn't quite break in to the Chelsea team, but has been an excellent signing for Juventus. His pace running with the ball is a real threat, and he will be hoping to replicate his form of four years ago when he was the top of the assist charts at the tournament.
The squad has a nice blend of youth and experience, and they will be looking for inspiration from their star players to qualify from what is a tough group.

Star Man - Top scorer in Brazil 2014, and in qualifying for this tournament, James Rodriguez is the countries key player. He wasn't a regular at Real Madrid, but has been looking back to his best at Bayern Munich. He plays the role he loves for Colombia, behind the striker and with a free role, which gives him the chance to show his skills and eye for goal. He regularly scores important goals for his country, with five out of six of his goals in qualifying being the first goal of the game, and the other being an equaliser, against Chile. He could be set for another big tournament.

Japan - Normally regarded as the strongest team in Asia, Japan are definitely not expected to be such a threat this year. They just edged out Australia and Saudi Arabia by one point in the qualifiers, but arrive in Russia on the back of friendly defeats against Ukraine, Ghana and Switzerland. The Bosnian manager, Vahid Halihodzic led The Samurai to the tournament, but he was recently sacked, and the role given to Akira Nishino.

The Japanese Football Association technical director was given the job after Halihodzic was criticised for his direct and aggressive style of play. Now with a more attractive looking 3-4-3 in operation, they will try to return to the short passing and high pressing that made the team a danger in previous tournaments.

It will be difficult to change things in such short notice, but with the return to the squad of experienced players, Kagawa, Honda and Okazaki, the team looks stronger than it did 12 months ago.
The Bundesliga is where six of the current squad play, and they will be an important part of the managers plans. Hamburg have just been relegated, but captain and right wing back Goteku Sakai is a crucial player for his country. His energy on the right hand side is a good outlet, and he also helps out when required to defend.

Strikers Yoshinori Muto(Mainz) and Yuya Osako(just signed for Werder Bremen) will share central striker responsibilities. Muto has had a better season with Mainz, scoring ten goals, but Osako has been more prolific when playing for his country.
In qualifying, it was Genki Haraguchi that top scored. The winger played a key role in helping Fortuna Dusseldorf achieve promotion to the Bundesliga this season after going on loan there in January.

Japan are outsiders for the group, but with a new manager and some optimism back in the team, they could cause a surprise.

Star Man - Southampton defender Maya Yoshida was a regular in the Premier League again this season and he is the most important defender for Japan. He reads the game well and is aggressive, also providing a goal threat for his country with ten goals. He now has 80 caps for his country, and the 29 year old is hoping to be part of a back three that can keep clean sheets in Russia, against quality attacking opposition. He is likely to be busy and will have to lead the defense well for Japan to qualify.

Predictions - Group H is probably the hardest to predict given their is no clear favourite and no rank outsider. Colombia did so well four years ago, and they have James Rodriguez and Falcao to link up. They play Japan in game one, and a win would put them on their way to qualifying. I think they will top the group eventually, and be joined by Poland. The injury to Glik for Poland will be an issue, but with Milik, Zielinski and Lewandowski they are such a threat in attack, and I think they will be just too good for Senegal over the three games, maybe on goal difference.
Japan will finish 4th, I think, but Senegal could easily sneak in to the top two.

What to Bet on - Poland scored 28 goals in qualifying, dominating a tough group. I think they will beat Japan in the final game to qualify. They are 5/6 to beat Japan in that game.

World Klutz - It wouldn't be World Klutz without the most famous of them all in 2006. The last game of an illustrious career, the final of the World Cup, what a way to end it all on the biggest stage.
France went on to lose the shootout and Zidane retired in disgrace. I'll forever remember him for his goal at Hampden when I stood behind it on the track as a 15 year old. But this moment possibly cost his team, as they saw Italy lift the trophy.

People too young to remember 2002 will forever remember this as his most famous moment.

He went on to management and is doing not bad.

Monday, 4 June 2018

World Cup Preview - Group G

Group G

England (13)
Belgium (3)
Tunisia (14)
Panama (55)

England - Qualification was relatively straightforward for England as they only dropped points away at Scotland and Slovenia, drawing both. They didn't convincingly win all their games, with a 4-0 win in Malta and 3-0 at home to Scotland their only wins by more than two goals but topping the group was never really in doubt.

Despite continuous high expectations, England have failed to get past the quarter final of a World Cup since a 4th place finish in 1990.

Gareth Southgate will be looking forward to his first major tournament as a manager, and he has gone with a squad that has an average age of just 26.

The big talking point all season was whether Joe Hart would still be number one as he has been since 2012. However his poor form has resulted in him not even being selected, meaning Jack Butland and Jordan Pickford will battle it out for the starting role. The position has been an issue at tournaments for a while with England, and now with less than ten caps between all three goalkeepers, it could be a problem area.

Defensively they resorted to a back three, but strangely it seems to be including Kyle Walker. Walker has been outstanding for Manchester City this year as an attacking full back, but defensively he has been vulnerable at times. On the right of a back three seems to take away his strengths and force him to defend more. Beside him there is a choice of Stones, out of favour at City, Cahill who was a long time out of the team at Chelsea, Jones who is an accident waiting to happen and Maguire, who I am not convinced is a good defender. He is comfortable on the ball, but I think he could be in trouble when up against a top opposition.

In the midfield it seems that Eric Dier will be used in the holding role he plays for Spurs. He was moved there mainly because he isn't a good enough defender. For me he isn't a top level passer and isn't what England need to keep the ball when games are tight. Henderson had a strong season with Liverpool taking them to the Champions League final. He is busier and more aggressive than Dier, and tries more forward passes. He isn't world class either, but might be a better option. It is possible both are playing against stronger teams.

The strength of the England team is in the forward four players. Harry Kane has proved he is one of the best strikers in the world. He scores goals and links the play well and is always hungry to get in the box. One slight worry is it looked like he wasn't fully fit towards the end of the season, so it will be interesting to see how he gets on. Teammate Dele Alli is also a great goalscorer. He doesn't have incredible pace or skill, but he has an instinct for goals and I think his movement in the box is outstanding. He will score goals at this tournament for sure, but he has to make sure he doesn't get sent off because teams will try to wind him up.

Another weapon they have is pace from the bench from Vardy, Rashford, Lingard and Welbeck. Pace at the end of games when defenders are tiring can be a real bonus, and they could all have crucial roles to play.

Star Man - Raheem Sterling has been regularly criticised throughout his career, but since Guardiola joined Manchester City his game has gone to new levels. His confidence is sky high and he has added goals to his game, especially this season. His final product was always the issue, but now he has looked more composed in the final third and set up goals as well as scored goals all season. His pace, quick feet and change of direction make him an important player as England look to unlock defenses and advance deep into the knockout stages.

Belgium - Belgium are nearing the end of their so called golden generation and it hasn't produced what was expected. Now with Roberto Martinez in charge, it seems like nobody is expecting them to challenge for the trophy this time around. He made a strange decision not including Roma midfielder Nainngolan, despite him having a great season for the Champions League semi finalists.

Benteke was a surprise inclusion despite an awful season of just three goals with Crystal Palace in the initial squad, but he has not been included in the 23. It was perhaps as a backup given that Michy Batshuayi picked up an ankle injury late in the season after really impressing on his loan move in Dortmund. He must be fit, so they won't only be relying on Romelu Lukaku to score the goals from upfront. He is one player that has probably gained confidence under Mourinho, as he is constantly talked up in the press and starts every time he is fit. He lost his place at the 2014 World Cup to Divock Origi, but I'd be surprised if that happens again. He won't win the golden boot, but he can be the important link man to get Belgium up the pitch and help get their star players on the ball in the final third.

One of those stars is Kevin De Bruyne, probably the best passer in the Premier League. He is so clever at finding space and recognising when to pass the ball and where to pass it. He has license to roam as Axel Witsel and possibly Marouane Fellaini sit deeper and protect the defense.

Dries Mertens has had his best two seasons as a footballer the last two years at Napoli. Now 31 he has taken on a goalscoring responsibility, and has managed 56 over the last two seasons. He goes to the World Cup after a great season with Napoli and with his pace and running off the ball, will add another dimension from Lukaku, De Bruyne and Hazard.

Despite the reputation of the manager struggling with defense in the past, he is lucky to have inherited such a strong one here. It looks like Kompany might have injured himself, so it could help as Vertonghen and Alderweireld get to link up as a partnership. When they play together at Spurs they are the best partnership in the league, and should be strong for Belgium. Thomas Meunier has played a number of games at right back for PSG this season, and Vermaelen can fit in at left back, despite not being a regular at Barcelona. With Courtois behind them this is a team that shouldn't concede many goals, and is very dangerous on the attack.

Star Man - No doubt that Eden Hazard has had inconsistent form with Chelsea the last few years, but he is such an exciting player to watch. His close control is as good as anyone and when he dribbles with the ball his change of direction and acceleration from a standing start are almost impossible to defend. He can win a game on his own and also has great composure infront of goal. He is likely to be top scorer for Belgium, and with defenses likely to have to watch Mertens, De Bruyne and Lukaku as well, he should get opportunities to run 1v1 at defenders, and there will only be one winner in that scenario.

Tunisia - Surprisingly the highest ranked team in Africa now, Tunisia qualified by winning a group with DR Congo, Libya and Guinea. They were unbeaten and will compete for the first time at the World Cup since 2006. They have never advanced past the groups, and in fact only ever won one game, a 3-1 defeat of Mexico in 1978.

Top scorer in qualifying Youssef Msakni is unfortunately going to miss out on the tournament due to an injury he picked up in April. The second top scorer in the Qatari League, with 25 goals in 22 games was the main goal threat for the country. Now they will be relying on home based players, Anice Bedri and Saber Khalifa, or Saudi based Ben Youssef to find the net. Between them they have 15 goals for their country, but it will be a huge step up from the leagues the play in.

Recent friendly draws against Turkey and Portugal will have given them confidence going in to the tournament, but they are up against it in this group.

Most of the players play in Asia or African leagues, with a handful playing in France. 31 year old Leicester City defender, Yohan Benalouane has only three caps for Tunisia after rejecting call ups previously hoping to earn his way in to the France squad. Born in France he finally accepted a call up for Tunisia this year, and some will not be happy with his inclusion. He is a strong defender however, and is likely to be starting games in central defense.

Only 33 year old goalkeeper Aymen Mathlouthi has more than 50 caps in the squad, and having made his debut in 2007, it means that every member of the squad will be going to their first ever World Cup.

Star Man - He showed only glimpses of quality at Sunderland, but having scored 11 goals for Rennes this season Wahbi Khazri is the most likely star for Tunisia. He has 12 goals for his country, including a recent winner against Costa Rica in a friendly. His delivery from set pieces will be vital for Tunisia, and he will be relied upon to create chances in open play. This Tunisia team is lacking any real stars, and playing England and Belgium in their first two games, they could be out before they get a chance to beat Panama.

Panama - A national holiday was declared when Panama qualified for their first ever World Cup at the expense of the USA. An 88th minute winner at home to Costa Rica in the final game from 110 times capped defender, Roman Torres gave them third position and a place in Russia. He is one of five players in the squad with more than 100 caps, full of players based in Central and North America.

A lot of the defenders in the squad have struggled for game time at their clubs this season, but one regular has been Adolfo Machado at Houston Dynamo. The 33 year old defender served a two year doping ban from 2012, but with 65 caps for his country he has been a strong central defender in qualifying and in the the MLS.

Only one player in the squad plays in a top level domestic league in Europe, and that is left back Erick Davis. He plays in Slovakia with Dunajska Streda, who finished third in the league this season. With many not being regulars at their clubs, or playing in second tiers, this is for me the poorest squad at the tournament, perhaps along with Saudi Arabia.

They won three out of ten games in qualifying which was enough to see them through, scoring only nine goals, conceding ten. It's an incredibly poor record for a team that qualified automatically and shows how poor the CONCACAF qualifying is.

It will be a great party for them in Russia and their supporters, but they are nowhere near good enough and will be lucky to get a point from their three games.

Star Man - Gabriel Torres is the main striker for Panama, and has had a solid journeyman careers so far. Nine goals in 15 games so far for Huachipato in Chile this season, he has totalled 15 international goals as well. He once had a trial at Manchester United in 2007, but his career has been played on the other side of the Atlantic. He was top scorer at the Gold Cup in 2013, and will be hoping to add to his tally in Russia.

Predictions - This group is probably the easiest to predict given the strengths of England and Belgium over Tunisia and Panama. Also given England meet Belgium last, they both should already have qualified by then. Panama are likely to finish bottom as Tunisia should beat them to claim third spot.

Depending on whether players are rested in the third game, I can see Belgium just having too much for England with the attacking options they have.

What to Bet on - Panama are 15/2 to be the lowest scoring team that the tournament. I don't think they will score any.

World Klutz - In 2010 it was a big chance for Rob Green to earn himself the right to be England goalkeeper for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately in game one versus USA, it didn't quite work out...

This goal resulted in a 1-1 draw for England, who would eventually go out to Germany in the Last 16. Rob Green was subsequently dropped for the following game, and only played one more time for England, two years later. A shocking piece of goalkeeping, one that England will be hoping doesn't happen to whoever is chosen as first choice this year.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

World Cup Preview - Group F

Group F

Germany (1)
Mexico (15)
Sweden (23)
South Korea (61)

Germany - The number one ranked team in the world and defending champions will fancy their chances again in Russia. Their squad is as strong as four years ago with many of them returning to defend the title, but also an exciting group of young players who are making their mark in top European leagues.
I love watching Leroy Sane play for Manchester City. His pace is outstanding, but he is so direct running with the ball, makes good runs without the ball and has the composure in the final third. Fellow 22 year old winger Julian Brandt has been a regular for Leverkusen for four years now, providing goals and assists from right wing. They can both have a huge impact this summer with their pace and quality in the final third.
Joshua Kimmich has proved at Bayern Munich that he is one of the best right backs in the world this season, a replacement for club and country for Philipp Lahm who retired after the last World Cup. He is only 23 years old, and will have Leon Goretzka, also 23, joining him at Bayern next season. Goretzka has been a regular at Schalke for five years, and he has developed into a strong central midfielder with an eye for goal and great ability with the ball. The future for Germany looks very strong, and the young players in the squad keep the more experienced players on their toes and battling for their positions in the starting 11.
One issue Germany might have is with their star keeper Manuel Neuer. He last played a game in September, when he fractured his foot for the second time, and his recovery has been longer than expected. He was the best keeper in the world at the last World Cup, but now he is out of game practice it could affect him. Marc Andre ter Stegen is an able replacement, but he doesn't have the same presence in goals as Neuer.
The spine from the squad four years ago is still in place, with Hummels, Kroos, Khedira, Mesut Özil and Thomas Muller all very much part of a team that looks as strong as anyone else in the competition. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Germany defending their title, but they have to get through the group first unlike Spain last time out, when they failed to defend their title.
In qualifying they won every game, scoring 43 goals and conceding only four. This team looks strong and ready to go in Russia.

One to Watch - Another 22 year old that has become the most likely starting striker for Germany, and on the back of another 21 goals season, is Timo Werner. He perhaps isn't the most recognisable name in the squad but he won the golden boot at last years Confederations Cup and has scored seven goals in 12 caps for Germany. His form for RB Leipzig means he is the main striker for his country now, and with the quality they have in midfield and in wide positions he could be in with a chance of scoring many goals at this tournament and following in the footsteps of previous Golden Boot winner and World Cup legend, Miroslav Klose.

Mexico - As the strongest team in the CONCACAF region it is no surprise Mexico qualified easily topping the final group stage, now going to their 7th tournament in a row. Every time in that run they have been knocked out in the last 16 stage, which they will be looking to better this time around. They have an experienced squad with 14 players having more than 50 caps, including 39 year old Rafael Marquez, who if he plays, will be playing in his fifth World Cup, becoming only the third player to do so after Lothar Mattheus(Germany) and fellow Mexican Antonio Carbajal.
Marquez might not be a guaranteed starter, but other players with over 100 caps, Andres Guardado, Javier Hernandez and Giovani dos Santos certainly will be. Guardado has had a good first season at Real Betis after his move from PSV, and despite not featuring regularly, Hernandez did score eight goals for a defensive West Ham team. He is a poacher so is their main goal threat. Dos Santos, along with his brother Jonathan, plays for LA Galaxy now and are both regulars which will give them confidence as they head to Russia. Giovani is an excellent dribbler and although his career didn't quite take off as expected he still possesses the ability to create and score important goals.
Strong defender Diego Reyes hasn't been a regular this year with Porto, starting only nine league games. He is crucial to the defense with his height and strength needed in a defense lacking real presence.
Teammate at Porto, Hector Herrera is a dynamic midfielder that likes to get forward and help the attack, but can also put his foot in at the other end. He has been a regular for Porto since they signed him in 2013. He is the best central midfielder in the squad and gives strength and energy to a midfield allowing the creative players ahead to create chances.
Since moving to the new Los Angeles team this year, Carlos Vela has scored goals that will give him the confidence he needs to showcase his talents on the world stage. He is another Mexican that hasn't quite lived up to potential throughout their career, but if they play to the best of their ability Mexico could get themselves to the last 16 again, then try and go further.

One to Watch - Top scorer in qualifying, and for PSV this season in the Eredivisie, Hirving Lozano helped his club to the title with some sparkling displays. At only 22 he has a big future, and the pacey winger is a big goal threat from the left hand side for Mexico. He likes to cut in on his right foot and with a great first season at PSV behind him, we can expect him to be an important player in Russia.

Sweden - Since finishing third in 1994 Sweden haven't been past the last 16, failing to qualify for the previous two tournaments. This time around they managed to get the better of The Netherlands in group A, losing out to France as they went to the playoffs. They were handed a tough draw against Italy, but got the better of the Italians with a 1-0 home win proving good enough as they held out in Milan. With Zlatan retired from international football Sweden has been left without a star name in the squad, perhaps helping them become a more solid team all working with each other.
Marcus Berg has been the main beneficiary. Now playing in Abu Dhabi at Al Ain, Berg was the top scorer for Sweden in qualifying with eight goals. He is 31 years old and now a regular starter for his country since Zlatan stopped.
Victor Lindelof was a big summer signing for Manchester United last year after some impressive performances in Europe with Benfica. He has however fallen out of favour and been publicly criticised by Mourinho during his first season. He is a good defender, especially in the system that Sweden will play. He can be exposed playing in a team who dominate the ball, but Sweden are likely to sit deep and counter attack, so he will be crucial with his physical presence defending the box.
Long time Swedish goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson retiring has left an open position that three have the opportunity to fill. The three 28 year olds, Olsen, Johnsson and Nordfeldt have 29 caps between them, and this is clearly a position that Sweden are weak.
55 year old manager Janne Andersson will be going to his first major tournament with Sweden with a squad that doesn't look good enough to compete. They will be relying on a strong base and hoping to grab a goal on the break.

Star Man - The undoubted star of this team, and a player who has been in outstanding form in the Bundesliga with RB Leipzig the last two seasons, is Emil Forsberg. The 26 year old is a target for Arsenal this summer after four years in Germany. The winger was voted in the Bundesliga team of the season last year, and was top of the assist charts in the league. The right footer generally plays on the left hand side, and as well as an eye for a pass likes to cut in and shoot, and also arrive in the box to get on the end of crosses. He is comfortable running with the ball and a player that Sweden will need to be at his energetic best to give them a chance of progressing.

South Korea - Since a high ranking of 17 in 1998 and a fourth place finish in their home World Cup in 2002, South Korea have now dropped to 61 in the world and have only got six players in the squad playing outside of Asia. They qualified through their AFC group in second place, well behind group winners Iran. Failing to win away from home was their big problem, which included defeats to footballing minnows Qatar and China. They only just stayed ahead of Syria on the final day thanks to Iran drawing with the Syrians while South Korea played out a goalless draw with Uzbekistan.
The Koreans defensively are relying on mostly home based players, with a few playing in China and Japan. Park Joo-ho(Dortmund) and Kim Jin-Su(Hoffenheim) were recently on the books and played a handful of games in Germany with their respective clubs, but both have now found themselves back playing in Korea. Defense is certainly a weak area in this team.
It s midfield that Korea have more recognisable names to choose from. Ki Sung-Yeung since he arrived at Celtic and subsequently moved to Swansea, has always looked an accomplished player. He is both footed, very calm in possession and can score goals from outside of the box. He doesn't get around the pitch as much as others, but he is an important player and will earn his 100th cap on his next appearance.
Followers of Bundesliga football will know of Augsburg midfielder Koo Ja-cheol. Although not a regular, he has an eye for goal and is a hard working attacking midfielder. He was the scorer of Augsburg's first ever Bundesliga hattrick, and has 19 goals for his country in 65 games.
Manager Shin Tae-yong has certainly favoured the Asian based players, and also going to his first World Cup he has an almost impossible job to take the Koreans past the group.

Star Man - The only star name in the Korean squad is Son Heung-min. Four years ago I said I would like to see him playing in the Premier League, and since he signed for Spurs in 2015 he has improved every year. He is very direct running with the ball, makes good runs off the ball and has great energy. But his big strength is his ability to hit shots with both feet equally powerfully. He can sometimes lack composure with his shots, but on his day he is a lethal finisher and the 25 year old will be looking to add to his total of 21 goals in Russia.

Predictions - Germany look nailed on to win this group. They will likely beat Mexico and Sweden then go on to rest players against South Korea. Even with a weakened team I expect them to win all three games. Mexico versus Sweden in the final game could well be the decider for second place. For me Mexico have more quality and are a bigger goal threat. It will be a tight game but I think they can win it and progress in second place.

What to Bet on - Germany will win this group, but Mexico are 6/4 to finish second. Worth a bet.

World Klutz - In 1974, Zaire(now DR Congo) qualified for their one and only World Cup. In their final game against Brazil, Mwepu Ilunga did something that nobody had seen before on the world stage...

Zaire went on to lose 3-0, giving themselves a record of 3 games, 3 defeats, no goals scored and 14 against. Although it was perceived at the time to be an example of African football's naivety and indiscipline, Ilunga has claimed that he was quite aware of the rules and was hoping to convince the referee to send him off. The intended red card would have been a protest against his country's authorities, who were alleged to be depriving the players of their earnings in an era when Zaire was run by the Mobutu regime.
Not so funny in reality, but when taken in the context of the game, quite amusing to watch.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

World Cup Preview - Group E

Group E

Brazil (2)
Switzerland (6)
Costa Rica (25)
Serbia (35)

Brazil - The favourites for the World Cup with the bookmakers, Brazil come in on the back of an excellent qualifying campaign in which they lost only one game, away at Chile. The five time champions last won the tournament in 2002, when Ronaldo inspired them to a win over Germany in the final. Four years ago it was Germany who embarrassed Brazil in the semi final, with that 7-1 defeat being the worst in their history. Redemption is on the mind of the nation, and they have a squad capable of achieving that.
The goalkeeping position had long been an issue for Brazil, since Taffarel retired they have struggled to replace him, but now there are two keepers more than capable of starting. Ederson has been outstanding for Man City this season, he is likely to be on the bench behind Roma stopper Alisson. Alisson is a great shot stopper, and a huge presence in goals. He doesn't sweep or use his feet as well as Ederson, but he is as good at saving shots as anyone.
Defensively, the PSG duo of Marquinhos and Thiago Silva are both solid defenders with pace, and that gives license for Marcelo and Danilo to push on from fullback to help the attack. Fred, Fernandinho and Casemiro are all options in the sitting midfield role, while they have a huge amount of talent and pace in the forward five positions.
Roberto Firmino has been outstanding for Liverpool as the central striker, and he will be battling Gabriel Jesus for a starting place. Meanwhile Douglas Costa, Coutinho, Willian, Paulinho and the second Shakhtar player in the squad, Taison can all provide pace, goals, quality on the ball and directness to the attack.
This squad is far stronger than the one that made it to the semi finals four years ago. They conceded only 11 goals in 18 qualifying games, scoring 41, with 13 different players getting on the scoresheet. Goals can come from anywhere on the pitch, and no doubt this year they are favourites and are out to prove they are the best in the world.

Star Man - It is a massive relief I'm sure for manager Tite to see Neymar back training after his dreaded metatarsal injury. He is the star for Brazil in a team of world class players. His dribbling skills are as good as anyone, but also he is a leader for the country. His back injury four years ago was crucial in their demise when he had to sit out the Germany game. He has 53 goals in 83 caps, well on his way to beating the 77 goal record Pele has for Brazil. Lets hope he is fit for Russia, because he could light up the World Cup and take Brazil to title number six.

Switzerland - They might be the 6th ranked team in the world, but Switzerland would still be deemed a dark horse as they prepare for Russia. They were unlucky not to qualify automatically, given they lost their only points of the group stage with a defeat on the final day in Portugal. They had to play Northern Ireland in the playoffs, and a dubious penalty in the first leg in Belfast proved crucial, as it was the only goal scored over two legs.
Since the World Cup expanded from 16 teams in 1982 the Swiss have never made it past the last 16, but recently the team has found a decent formula under coach Vladimir Petkovic. With two sitting midfielders protecting the defense, they only conceded seven goals in 12 qualifying games, thanks also to in form goalkeeper Yann Sommer. The Monchengladbach stopper is reportedly being tracked by Manchester City as back up for Ederson after a fine season.
Captain Stephan Lichsteiner is two caps away from 100, and the full back was still an important part of the Juventus title winning squad this season. On the opposite side, Ricardo Rodriguez has been seen as a top class left back for years now, and still only 25 years old. Defensively sound he also has a great left foot for crossing and set pieces.
Although Granit Xhaka has been seen as a poor signing for Arsenal, he plays an important role linking defense and attack alongside a 21 year old future star, Denis Zakaria. The tall holding midfielder has been a regular in the Bundesliga this season at Monchengladbach, and he looks like a real talented central midfielder.
Upfront is an area that Switzerland don't lack numbers, but do lack a real goalscorer. In qualifying, 14 different players scored goals, with Haris Seferovic the top marksman with four. He has 11 goals for his country but wasn't a regular starter for Benfica this term, managing just four league goals. When looking at the other four strikers who are potential starters, Derdiyok, Mehmedi, Drmic and Embolo, none have been regulars for their teams this season. It is perhaps why Swiss Super league top scorer, Albia Ajeti, has been called up to the preliminary squad. He could be in line for his first cap after 17 goals this season.
Brazil are obviously group favourites, but Switzerland are well organised, and could be tough to beat in the first group game.

Star Man - Of all the Stoke players this season perhaps only Xherdan Shaqiri can hold his head up at the end of it. He always looked their most dangerous player and most likely scorer and is the one Swiss player with real quality in the final third. He has 20 goals for his country from 68 caps, and he is capable of being a game winner all by himself. Sometimes he can be guilty of holding on to the ball too long, but it can be forgiven when he puts it in the top corner from 25 yards, as he seems to do more often than other players when he cuts in on that left foot.

Costa Rica - Four years ago Costa Rica surprised everyone by topping a group containing England, Italy and Uruguay. They then beat Greece on penalties in a forgettable encounter, before losing on penalties to The Netherlands. It was the first ever quarter final appearance at the World Cup and one that is unlikely to be emulated in Russia. With three automatic places up for grabs in the CONCACAF region, Costa Rica finished second behind Mexico to book their place for the 4th time out of the last five tournaments.
Goalkeeper Keylor Navas signed for Real Madrid after the last World Cup, and despite regular criticism he has been their number one ever since. An athletic goalkeeper, he is likely to be busy in the tournament and will be crucial to any success that Costa Rica will have.
Cristian Gamboa hasn't managed to break in to the Celtic team regularly, but himself and Bryan Oviedo provide good attacking options from wing back. They are both regulars for their country and will be expected to get forward and provide crosses. The squad is almost identical to the one that did so well in Brazil with the midfielders Bolanos, Borges and Tejeda, who formed a three in midfield still involved. Bolanos is 34 now so it is possible that Rodney Wallace or David Guzman, both based in Major League Soccer, could take his place in the starting lineup at least for one of the games. Former Fulham man, now with Sporting Lisbon, the 32 year old captain Bryan Ruiz is the link between midfield and attack. He is an extremely talented footballer and although he sometimes plays at a slower tempo than you would like, he has the ability to pick out a pass on his left foot, and also produce a bit of magic. He has 23 goals for his country, the top scorer in the current squad. He hasn't been a regular in Portugal this season so he will need to up his game to try and take Costa Rica beyond the groups again.

Star Man - The season before the last World Cup Joel Campbell burst on to the scene with some impressive performances for Olympiakos in the Champions League. He hasn't really kicked on since then, with Arsenal loaning him out every season it must be hard to find form. This year at Real Betis he hasn't played much but he seems to rise to the occasion of playing for his country and big tournaments. He is quick, has a good left foot and is very direct. If he can perform the way he did four years ago again, then his country has a chance of coming through the groups.

Serbia - Group D in qualification contained Ireland, Wales and Austria, but it was Serbia who came through it on top thanks mainly to some attacking football that saw them score 20 goals over the ten games. Top scorer in the group was on loan Fulham man Aleksander Mitrovic with six. Falling out of favour at Newcastle he has gone to Fulham and taken them to the brink of promotion, with the playoff final. Strong and aggressive, he has also shown an eye for goal with 12 since joining in February. He is a real threat from cross balls which can be useful for his country as one of the best crossers of a ball in world football, Aleksander Kolarov plays left back. They are likely to link up at some point in this tournament.
Still playing at 34 is Branislav Ivanovic. He has always been a strong defender and is a leader for his country as he was for many years at Chelsea. Now playing at Zenit he has played 38 games this season which shows his fitness is still great.
The big strength for Serbia is midfield however. They have a group of players all under 30 who have experience, but also quality. Nemanja Matic is a world class central midfielder, and alongside him, Luka Milivojevic has had an outstanding season at Crystal Palace. They form a strong base to allow more attacking players like Dusan Tadic, Filip Kostic, Adem Llajic to create opportunities for Mitrovic.
The future looks very exciting for Serbia as their squad contains many young players playing across the major leagues of Europe. Winners of the under 20 World Cup in 2015, they now look like they could be starting to show signs of being ready to advance in a World Cup for the first time since the break up of Yugoslavia.

Star Man - The star of that under 20 team that won the World Cup, and a player many are touting for a huge money move this summer, is Sergei Milinkovic-Savic. He has been a regular in the Lazio team for the last three seasons, and this year was the star man alongside Ciro Immobile. He is a classic all-round midfielder with the strength and height to hold off any opponent, but also the quick feet and passing ability to unlock defenses. He has been compared to Zidane and it is easy to see why. He is a goal threat with feet and head, and this tournament can be a chance for him to showcase his talents.

Predictions - Pre tournament favourites Brazil have been given a relatively tough group, but I expect them to progress without too many problems. It will depend on Neymar being fully fit whether they go all the way. Before reading up on the teams I would have thought Switzerland were slightly stronger, but having seen what Serbia have in their squad I think they will be too strong for the Swiss and could be a dark horse this year. Costa Rica performed miracles in Brazil, but I can't see them doing it again in Russia.

What to Bet on - Serbia are 11/8 to qualify, I like those odds.

World Klutz - Everybody remembers Rene Higuita for his scorpion kick against England but he was regularly messing about while playing goalkeeper. He was an entertainer that loved coming out from his box with the ball. Rewind to the 1990 World Cup in Italy, and against Cameroon and a 38 year old (maybe 42) Roger Milla...

The goal made it 2-0 in extra time, effectively knocking Colombia out of the World Cup.
This wasn't his finest moment, but do take a few minutes to look at some of his other videos. A true character of the game and the likes of which we will never see again.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

World Cup Preview - Group D

Group D

Argentina (5)
Iceland (22)
Croatia (18)
Nigeria (47)

Argentina - The qualifying campaign for Argentina was a real struggle. After matchday 14 out of 18, manager Edgardo Bauza was replaced by Jorge Sampaoli with the team sitting 5th in the table. They had just been beaten 2-0 in Bolivia and needed to improve if they were to qualify. Three consecutive draws were not ideal, but they were saved by a final game hat-trick in Ecuador by Leo Messi and go to Russia as fifth favourites despite their troubles.
Despite having a number of attacking stars, only Messi scored more than 2 goals in the whole of qualifying. There is a real issue with fitting players in to the system that will also work as a defensive unit. It has become obvious that Sampaoli doesn't like to have Dybala, Messi, Higuain and Aguero all playing in the same team, it is impossible to keep everyone happy and playing where they want to. Mauro Icardi who has scored 28 goals in Serie A this year for Inter might make the squad at the expense of Dybala. It's even possible both won't be going, as Angel Di Maria can play a more advanced role.
Defensively the form of Nicolas Otamendi is a real boost who alongside Javier Mascherano have nearly 200 caps between them. They should form an experienced back four with Marcos Rojo and Gabriel Mercado.
They always go to the tournament as a contender, but this year they look vulnerable. Sampaoli has tried to strengthen them defensively and play more solid, hoping that their attacking flair can give them wins. It will be interesting to see how they lineup when they meet a well organised Iceland in game one in Moscow.

Star Man - The reliance on Lionel Messi is more evident than ever this year. Four years ago he nearly took them to World Cup glory, but just fell short in the final. The greatest player of all time now has probably his last chance to win a World Cup. He has had another season of over 40 goals, his ninth consecutive season doing so, and it will be up to him to score the goals, create the chances and be the leader for his country as they try and go one step further than they managed in Brazil.

Iceland - After qualifying for their first ever European Championships, then dispatching England in the last 16, Iceland promptly went on to qualify for their first ever World Cup. This proved that they are a country on the up and have a team worthy of competing on the biggest stage. In a competitive group containing Finland, Turkey, Ukraine, and also World Cup opponents Croatia, they came out on top thanks mainly to winning all five home games. The squad has no star names but they have proven with hard work and togetherness that they are capable of beating anybody.
Familiar names playing in England include Gylfi Sigurdsson, and Aron Gunnarsson, who are part of the midfield also including Johann Berg Gudmundsson, who has been a regular for Burnley this year and a real creative presence. The defensive unit has been playing together for the best part of 8 years for Iceland and is crucial towards their success. The likely team will include four defenders and a goalkeeper all over 30, so this might be their last tournament before the younger group comes through. A hard working team who are aggressive and dangerous from set pieces, they also have enough quality in midfield to keep the ball when required. In an open group they will be in with a chance of qualifying for the last 16, and their style of play will not be nice to play against for any opponents.

Star Man - Although Gylfi was top scorer in qualifying he has had a poor season for Everton, and it is likely that the main man upfront will be Alfred Finnbogason. He has had his best season in Augsburg so far, scoring 12 goals in just 19 games in the Bundesliga. He will be the striker in a team with 3 creative players behind him and he has to take any chances that come his way.

Croatia - After finishing second to Iceland in qualification, Croatia hammered Greece in the playoffs to book their place in Russia. Only once have they made it through the group stages, when they finished third in France 98. It would be a major surprise if they were to replicate that, despite having one of the strongest midfield pairings of Rakitic and Modric. The squad is filled with players that play in the big four leagues in Europe, but on paper it is not as strong a squad as they have had previously. Goalkeeper is a problem area as they try to choose between Subasic, who has lost his place at Monaco this season, and Gent keeper Lovre Kalinic. Kalinic has impressed since becoming the record signing for Gent, and he could well be the number one for Croatia. Defensively Dejan Lovren has now returned to the international scene, after he had fallen out with the previous manager. Corluka and Lovren will form a partnership, while Atletico Madrid right back, Sime Vrsaljko provides a good defensive option.
Along with Modric and Rakitic, Mateo Kovacic provides quality in midfield, and the transformation of Mario Mandzukic in to a defensive winger means they have goalscoring threats from wide areas. Ivan Perisic has had another good season for Inter Milan, with his pace he is a constant threat on the left wing.
Upfront the two options are players who have bounced back after tough spells in England. Nikola Kalinic was a laughing stock for Blackburn, but managed to resurrect his career at Dnipro, and after a successful spell at Fiorentina now plays at AC Milan. He is not prolific, but is likely to start up front, with Andre Kramaric, now playing at Hoffenheim after a spell at Leicester, an able back up. He has scored 13 league goals this season, and will be a threat from the bench.
One other player going to the tournament full of confidence after his game winning display in the German Cup final, is Ante Rebic. He scored two goals in a 3-1 victory over Bayern Munich and the winger will be hoping to have an impact in Russia.

Star Man - For many, Luka Modric is the best central midfielder in the world. The way he receives the ball, always moving it the right way with his first touch and never giving it away, he is a joy to watch. He is crucial to the possession football that Croatia try and play, and along with Rakitic and Kovacic, he is part of a midfield that can dominate any opponents. They might struggle for goals from their strikers, but they do not lack creativity, and Modric is the perfect link between defense and attack.

Nigeria - The Super Eagles were historically the most likely African team to go far in a World Cup, but they have only ever managed to reach the Last 16 twice, including in Brazil. It would be a surprise given the current squad if they were to advance this time beyond the groups. Long time goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, although not great, was reliable enough and his retirement from international football means that Nigerian based keeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa is the likely replacement. This could be a major problem behind a defense that will have Kenneth Omeruo playing, who has been on Chelsea's books since 2012, and never played a game. Bursaspor teammates William Troost-Ekong and Shehu Abdullahi could well be used as well, with the latter being the more regular at his club. The Dutch born defender spent his youth career in London with Fulham and Tottenham, and standing at 6ft3in is a real presence.
Topping the qualifying group with Cameroon, Algeria and Zambia in it showed that this Nigeria team does have some quality in attacking areas. Despite playing for England youth teams, Alex Iwobi decided to play for the country of his birth and is part of a new young group of players that will be important for Nigeria. Kelechi Iheanacho and Wilfred Ndidi are teammates at Leicester, and both are 21 years old with exciting futures. Ndidi is a combative midfielder, while Iheanacho has proven himself as a goalscorer. He has found it hard to get game time this season due to the form of Jamie Vardy, but he is a calm finisher on his left foot.
Ahmed Musa is another Leicester player, although he spent last season on loan at CSKA Moscow where he only managed 16 appearances. He is inconsistent and quite poor technically. But he has a lot of speed and can cause problems on his day. Captain John Obi Mikel now plays in China, and although he isn't a creative player at all, he is an important part of the midfield as he sits deep and allows others to join the attack.

Star Man - Victor Moses has been a regular at Chelsea since the start of last season after finding himself a slot at right wing back in the Conte system. Another player that played youth for England, he decided to play for Nigeria in 2011 and has made 29 caps since, scoring 11 goals. His pace and strength from a wide area, as well as his quick feet, make him the main threat for Nigeria. He will be hugely important if they are to beat any of the other teams in the group.

Predictions - Argentina are strong favourites for the group despite not qualifying well. With their attacking players they should be able to score enough goals to win the group. It is possible they could be out fought by the others, who will likely play counter attacking football against them. For me they will just top the group, but not convincingly. Second place is up for grabs as Iceland have shown they can beat Croatia in qualifying, and Nigeria have young players who have energy for games close together. I think given the quality of midfielders, Croatia should manage to get through. It will most likely go down to the last game against Iceland on 26th June as a decider.

What to Bet on - Messi is 4/5 to score anytime in the first game against Iceland. A chance for him to get off to a good start in a game they will spend mostly attacking.

World Klutz - Time to go back to back to 2006 in Germany, a match between Croatia and Australia. Graham Poll had reached the peak of his refereeing powers with his inclusion in the World Cup refereeing team, and he was one of the potential referees for the final itself. Until...
Poll received universal ridicule that resulted in him being sent home in disgrace. He never refereed at international level again, promptly retiring after the end of the following season.

Monday, 7 May 2018

World Cup 2018 Preview - Group C

Group C

France (7)
Australia (40)
Peru (11)
Denmark (12)

France - Four years ago in Brazil France were beaten 1-0 by eventual champions Germany in the quarter finals. It was a disappointing display for a team many predicted had a squad strong enough to go all the way. Two years ago in their home European Championships they were pre tournament favourites and despite impressive displays en route to the final they were beaten by Portugal, despite having twice the attempts at goal to Portugal who eventually won it in extra time. If disappointment was the initial feeling after that it quickly became clear that the France squad being built was the strongest they have had since they were champions of the world in 1998.
Group A in qualification for the World Cup was the toughest on paper, with Sweden, Netherlands and Bulgaria all strong teams along with France. But, despite an embarrassing home draw with Luxembourg, France won it comfortably from Sweden and will arrive in Russia as one of the big four favourites. They have a young squad that will be captained by 31 year old Hugo Lloris in goals, who has had a disappointing season with Tottenham. He seems to have lost a little bit of confidence this season and hasn't been sweeping up behind his defense as well as he has in the past, which was a huge part of his game. It has affected his decision making and now he will hoping to put it behind him when he lines up for France.
An issue that Deschamps might have had was Koscielny carrying a heel problem that was clearly affecting his form all season, now with his serious achilles injury ending his season, unfortunately for him he will miss the World Cup. France do have great depth in every area and with the potential partnership of El Classico rivals Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti looking like an excellent prospect, at 25 and 24 respectively, they could be playing together for the next 4 major tournaments at least.
In terms of attacking talent the team is absolutely loaded with match winners and pace. Anthony Martial, Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele are all exciting youngsters with huge futures and already worth hundreds of millions between them. Manager Didier Deschamps has some decisions to make regarding his starting 11. Choosing between those 3 youngsters, Griezmann, Giroud, Payet, Kingsley Coman and perhaps the surprise of the season in Ligue 1 this year, former Newcastle man Florian Thauvin. He has scored 20 league goals this year and could certainly have his name on the plane to Russia.
With N'Golo Kante in midfield it gives the license for the front 5 to attack, and that is a frightening prospect for other defenses. France are absolutely in contention to win the tournament this year, and even if they don't they are set up to be the best team in the world for the next 5 or 6 years and the experience from this year will help in their development.

Star Man - Despite only showing flashes of brilliance for Manchester United, Paul Pogba in my opinion is as good a midfielder as any in the world. He is quick and strong, but more than that he has great feet and is so comfortable dribbling past players and taking the ball in tight situations. Against teams that will sit in he could be key to unlock defenses with his passing his clever movement around the box. He is something different to all the other stars France have, and he could be set to have a big tournament without Mourinho forcing him to defend and screen the back 4.

Australia - The Socceroos decision, whether it is fair or not, to move to the Asian WC qualifiers in 2005 has proved to be successful as they qualified for their 4th successive World Cup. Despite losing out to Saudi Arabia and Japan in the initial qualifiers they managed to squeeze through against Syria in a playoff, before comfortably beating CONCACAF team Honduras in a two legged playoff 3-1 on aggregate. Experienced manager Bert van Marwijk will be hoping to repeat the record of countryman Guus Hiddink, who took Australia to the last 16 in 2006, the only time they have ever advanced through the group stages. A recent 4-1 friendly defeat by a poor Norway seems to suggest he has a really tough job on his hands. Tim Cahill at 38 years old was instrumental for them beating Syria in the Asian playoff, and 33 year old Mile Jedinak scored a hattrick as they beat Honduras. The squad is based all over the world with only 2 or 3 players playing in the A-League, the majority playing all across Europe. Matt Ryan in goals as never impressed me as a top keeper, but he has held his place in the Brighton team this season and has improved as the season has gone on. He will be a busy keeper and will have to be on top form for Australia to progress. In attacking areas Mathew Leckie, who has been a regular at Hertha BSC this season will be a crucial player from wide areas. Australia only have 2 players that have scored more than 10 international goals in their squad, Cahill and Jedinak. It is clear they lack a threat up front, and Robbie Kruse who has regularly been a starter only has 5 goals in 62 caps. Aaron Mooy of Huddersfield has had an excellent season, and his set pieces will be a crucial part of the Aussie attack.

Star Man - Tom Rogic is a class act every time I watch him for Celtic. He is tall and awkward looking at times, but his futsal background means he has great touch and ability in tight areas. Not only that, he scores important goals and is a huge threat running with the ball. His left foot is deadly from range and I like watching him. He will be very important for Australia if they are to get through to the last 16 for the second time in their history.

Peru - Perhaps the biggest surprise from South American qualifying was Peru reaching the playoffs ahead of Chile. It wasn't without controversy however, as both teams were awarded 3-0 victories over Bolivia who fielded an ineligible player against them both. Chile had drawn, but Peru had lost 2-0, and in the final standings they managed to beat Chile on goal difference with the points against Bolivia proving absolutely pivotal to their qualification. They went on to beat New Zealand in an inter confederation playoff to qualify for their first World Cup since 1982. For record goalscorer Paolo Guerrero it was his last chance to get to the World Cup, and along with the familiar name of Jefferson Farfan, he will be enjoying potentially his last major tournament and hoping to inspire what is generally a young squad. Peru are very much a team that gets goals from all over the pitch as evidenced by 9 different scorers in qualifying. They were the third top scorers behind Brazil and Uruguay, and they possess a lot of pace in their team that can cause problems, especially on the counter attack. They are not a big side and instead rely on the technical ability of their attacking players including Andre Carillo, Christian Cueva and Jefferson Farfan. Paolo Guerrero will be used as the main striker, and at 34 he is more of an 18 yard box striker now, so it will be up to the quicker and youngers players behind him to try and create chances that will take Peru through into the knockout stages.

One to Watch - Joint top scorer in qualifying with Guerrero was 23 year old attacking midfielder Edison Flores. Flores currently plays his football in Denmark for AaB so he will be well known to his group opponents, but he has shown great goal scoring instincts for his country arriving late in the box and also some deadly finishing with his left foot. He looks like a real talented player and with a good World Cup could earn himself a nice move somewhere else in Europe.

Denmark - In what looks like an close race for second place in the group Denmark might just be second favourites. They lost out to Poland in the race for automatic qualification, but hammered Ireland in the playoffs 5-1 in Dublin to book their place in Russia thanks mainly to a hattrick from Christian Eriksen. In goals for his first major tournament will be Kasper Schmeichel, hoping to emulate father Peter, who was part of the Denmark team that went to the Quarter Finals in France 98, Denmarks best ever World Cup. Captain and central defender, Simon Kjær hasn't been playing regularly for Sevilla this year, which is an issue as his partnership with Chelsea central defender Andreas Christensen is an important part of the team. Another option at that position could be Borussia Monchengladbach regular, Jannik Vestergaard, which also gives Denmark an option of playing the in fashion back 3. Denmark don't score many goals through their strikers which could be a major problem in the tournament. Cornelius and Jørgensen managing 2 each in qualifying, and Dolberg and Poulsen getting 1 each it is clear there is no definite number 9 in the squad. Nicklas Bendtner had been for many years, and despite being top scorer in the Norwegian leagues last season, and having 30 goals for his country, he hasn't been trusted by the manager recently, and is unlikely to be starting the first game in Russia. One to watch out for might be Kasper Dolberg who now at 20 years old, scored 23 goals for Ajax last season. He hasn't been as prolific this season, but he has the potential to be Denmarks main striker for years to come.

Star Man - For me the top man at Tottenham this season has been Christian Eriksen. His passing range and quality in the final third is absolutely outstanding. He always puts Harry Kane and Dele Alli in great positions and picks out their movement. For Denmark he plays a slightly different role in that he has to carry the team. He was the third top scorer in European qualifying with 11 goals, behind only Ronaldo(15) and Lewandowski(16). His set piece delivery will be a crucial part of this team, and the form he is in he will have a country expecting him to take his team through this group.

Predictions - France are firm favourites to progress from Group C, and I'm sure they will convincingly progress with at least 7 points. Between the other three teams I think Australia are the weakest. They play France in game 1, so the other game could be the most important one. The winner of Denmark and Peru will most likely go on to qualify. If Denmark can win that, they then go on to play Australia and the group could be done before the last games. I think however, that given the pressure that will be a draw, and it will come down to goal difference. Denmark having Eriksen will help, and they will sneak through.

What to Bet on - Denmark are 4/5 to beat Australia in the second game on the 21st June. Australia look poor on paper, and Denmark should beat them comfortably.

World Klutz - Time to go back to 2002, a group C match between eventual champions Brazil, and Turkey. Time winding down on a 2-1 victory for Brazil, they have a corner...

The most embarrassing moments in Rivaldo's career, and still to this day makes me laugh. How can the linesman not see what has happened here? Turkey got the chance for revenge in the semi final, but Brazil beat them 1-0 through a Ronaldo goal and went on to beat Germany in the final.

Monday, 30 April 2018

World Cup 2018 Preview - Group B

Group B

Portugal (4)
Spain (8)
Morocco (42)
Iran (36)

Portugal - Two years ago Portugal surprised everyone by claiming the European Championships despite winning only one of their games inside of 90 minutes, a semi final win over Wales. They drew every group game, beat Croatia in extra time, Poland on penalties and won the final in extra time over France. It was Eder who scored the winner, his first ever competitive goal for Portugal. It would be an even bigger surprise if Portugal managed to win the World Cup despite a very impressive qualification in which they dropped only 3 points in an away defeat to Switzerland. Four years ago they were knocked out in the group stage by USA and Germany, a very disappointing campaign, so they will be out to improve on that but it will be a surprise for me if they manage to match their best ever performance of fourth place back in 2006.
There is absolutely no doubt that Portugal's quality is mostly in attacking areas. Bernardo Silva was outstanding for Monaco last season, and this season has played his part in a Manchester City team that has strolled the Premier League. He has the ability to unlock any defense with his skill, usually from the right hand side. William Carvalho was widely tipped to become a superstar, and although he hasn't quite fulfilled his potential yet, he is a crucial part of the central midfield area. He provides a more defensive platform for more noted attacking players like Andre Gomes, Joao Moutinho and Joao Mario to join the main man in attack.
The big problem for Portugal is their ageing central defenders. Bruno Alves has hardly looked convincing since his move to Rangers, the 36 year old is likely to be involved in the squad, and decisions will have to be made regarding 35 year old Pepe, 34 year old Jose Fonte and 32 year old Rolando. It will likely be the last tournament for whoever is selected, but so many games in a short period will be tough for players of that age.

Star Man - Although aged 33 Cristiano Ronaldo is still an incredible athlete is still scoring goals at about an average of a goal a game. His next cap for Portugal will be his 150th, and so far he is on 81 goals. In my opinion he is the best ever goalscorer to grace a football pitch, and his drive to be the best he can be is as strong as anyone to have played the game. He has regularly produced the goods in big games, and there is no doubt he could drag Portugal to the final stages of the competition. He has lost a bit of his pace, and is a completely different player now to the one we were watching 5 years ago. But now that he is playing as a central striker he could be in with a great chance of the Golden Boot.

Spain - Four years ago Spain were defending their title and failed miserably, being hammered by Netherlands in the first game, and following it up by a defeat to Chile. By the time they beat Australia it was too late. It was the end on an era as legends like Xavi, David Villa, Xabi Alonso and Iker Casillas decided it would be their last World Cup. This time around they come with a younger squad after a comfortable qualifying campaign, beating Italy in their group and only dropping two points in total with a 1-1 draw in Turin. The type of football that Spain play is always easy on the eye, and they are well set up in midfield to play possession football, but also have players with the ability to create chances in tight areas. Thiago, Isco and Koke are all small in stature and are very comfortable on the ball, and along with Andres Iniesta can all play anywhere across the midfield. Spain usually play quite narrow in midfield and these players all have the ability to take the ball in tight areas, create space between the lines and are always rotating and available for passes. Marco Asensio offers something a little different with more direct running and pace. He has been excellent for Real Madrid this season, often coming off the bench and changing games.
The striking options including Morata, Diego Costa and Iago Aspas are all reliable goalscorers for their clubs, even if Morata is struggling a little the second half of the season. It will be up to the manager who he selects, but for me Diego Costa would be the perfect option with the quality of midfielders that can play in behind him.
Dani Carvajal and Jordi Alba are both world class full backs offensively, or they have Cesar Azpilicueta as a more defensive option, and they can rely on the experienced defensive partnership of Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos. This is a squad that are serious contenders yet again to replicate the success of 2010 and they have every chance of going all the way.

Star Man - David De Gea has been the best goalkeeper in the Premier League for the last six years and is probably the best shot stopper in the world. He makes this Spain team even better and gives confidence to everyone in front of him. He has had to wait on his chance, with Iker Casillas(167caps) and Pepe Reina(36) being regular first and second choice since 2000 and 2005 respectively. Now that De Gea is number 1, he could well win his first senior international trophy after successful European campaigns with the under 21's in 2011 and 2013. At 27 he is the perfect age to be goalkeeper for at least the next 6 years and to get many more caps than his current 27.

Morocco - Managed by Herve Renard, twice winner of the African Nations(Zambia 2012, Ivory Coast 2015), the Atlas Lions come to the WC on the back of a convincing unbeaten qualifying, in a group with Ivory Coast, Gabon and Mali. The squad has somewhat of an overhaul the last 4 years which has resulted in their first world cup appearance since 1998. Only two players in the likely squad have over 50 caps, but recent friendly wins over South Korea and Serbia show that they are on the right track as they head to Russia. In a tough group with Portugal and Spain, it will be so important to beat Iran in game 1 to give themselves a platform for advancing out of the groups for only the second time in their history, the only time being in 1986. The Morocco squad is seriously lacking in star quality and will be relying heavily on the guile of their manager and team spirit to get themselves out of the group. Amine Harit at 20 years old is one of the young group of players hoping to make an impression this summer. He has had a solid season for Schalke after moving there from Nantes where he broke through in to the first team in 2016. He is a midfielder with some promise, and having broken into the national setup, could be set for a big role in Russia. Scoring goals could be the big issue for Morocco, Khalid Boutaib was top scorer in qualifying with 4, and he has 12 in the Turkish Super Lig for Yeni Malatyaspor this season. He will likely be the main striker, but it will be far more important for Morocco to be tight at the back, and will be crucial that Juventus central defender Mehdi Benatia is controlling the defense and leading by example as captain. It didn't quite work at Bayern Munich for him, but since returning to Italy, and especially this season, he has looked far more like the strong and athletic defender he was when playing with Roma.

One to Watch - At 25 years old Hakim Ziyech has become an important player for Ajax since his move after a successful spell at Twente. Playing as an attacking midfielder, he is the likely creative spark for Morocco, and also a goal threat. He has 8 goals in 14 appearances for his country, and is a real threat from free kicks. A former Dutch youth international at all levels, he decided to play for Morocco senior team in 2015, and now can look forward to his first World Cup.

Iran - Although Iran regularly appear at World Cups, this is the first time that they will be competing in successive competitions in their history. They have yet to progress through the group stages, but as the highest ranked team from Asia perhaps they have underachieved in previous tournaments. They topped their qualifying group, beating South Korea in the process and conceding only 2 goals in 10 games. Former Real Madrid manager Carlos Queiroz has been in charge since 2011 and he has built the team on a solid foundation, who rely on clean sheets and counter attack goals. They should in theory be built for tournament play as underdogs, and will be hoping, like Morocco, that a win in game 1 can give them real hope of beating Spain or Portugal to second place in the group. They only scored 10 goals in qualifying, and top scorer Sardar Azmoun, who plays his football at Rubin Kazan in Russia, got 4 of them. He is the main threat up front having scored 23 goals in his 31 appearances so far for Iran, and despite only 4 goals in Russia this season he will be a starter for his country. He is only 23 years old, so has a big future for his country, but has a long way to go to catch the target of 109 goals scored by the legendry, Ali Daei.

One to Watch - Nicknamed the Persian Pogba, 21 year old Saeid Ezatolahi was once regarded as a huge talent. After a year in the youth team at Atletico Madrid he decided to move to FC Rostov in Russia instead of playing B team football in Madrid. He is currently on loan at fellow Russian Premier League side, Amkar Perm where he is enjoying a more regular game. At 6ft3inches, he is a central midfielder of some promise for Iran, and will be hoping to have an impact at the tournament this summer.

Predictions - Obviously Spain and Portugal are firm favourites to qualify from Group B, but with them playing each other first it puts a lot of pressure on whoever loses that game to get results in the other two games. Spain are looking for a far better display after 4 years ago in Brazil, and I expect them to have a good tournament. I think they will be too good for Portugal, and go on to top the group with three wins. Portugal will be under pressure, but the lack of scoring power for Morocco and Iran should mean Ronaldo can drag Portugal through to the last 16 and join Spain.

What to Bet on - Portugal to finish second in the group at 11/10

World Klutz - This time it's back to 2010 in South Africa, to the fixture between Nigeria and South Korea. With a win taking either team through to the last 16 and South Korea leading 2-1, Yakubu was given a guilt edged chance to pull Nigeria back in to the game which they needed to win...

One of the worst misses in World Cup history no doubt. Yakubu went on to score a penalty later in the game, but it was too little too late for Nigeria who were dumped out.